What Was Ropeless Climber Alex Honnold’s Closest Call?

Alex Honnold free soloing Moonlight Buttress IV 5.13a in Zion National Park, UT. He is the first and only person to climb the route in this style.
Alex Honnold free soloing Moonlight Buttress IV 5.13a in Zion National Park, UT. He is the first and only person to climb the route in this style. Photograph by Celin Serbo / Aurora Photos

When I called Alex Honnold for this interview, the first thing he asked was whether I had read his new book, Alone on the Wall, which he co-wrote with David Roberts.  I think he was fishing a bit because I’ve heard from a few people that he throws me (aka as “Mr. Safety”) under the bus. I took Alex on his first international expedition to Low’s Gully in Borneo back in 2009, and on that trip and three subsequent expeditions, I’ve always played the foil to Alex, openly questioning the risks he takes, and calling bull when he tries to tell me that free soloing big walls isn’t dangerous.

He told me that he’s very proud of the book, and while it’s exactly what he wanted it to be, “it’s not heavy hitting, deeply insightful, meaning of life type of stuff. I think I can do that when I’m older,” he said. “Publishing really profound memories at the age of 30 seems sort of silly.”

Nonetheless, the book appears to be resonating deeply with Alex’s followers, as evidenced by the fact that it’s currently sitting at #7 in the sports category on the New York Times Bestsellers List. I can’t think of many climbers who have penned best-selling books–Touching the Void and Into Thin Air come to mind–but, of course, Honnold is not your average climber. (Read our Sunday Book Talk column “Alex Honnold Isn’t Fearless, He Just Accepts Death.”)

Here Alex tells us about how he deals with fear, his thoughts on spirituality, and his dating life.

Why do you do what you do? And no pressure, but it could be said that no climber has ever answered this question well.
You could say that no person has ever answered this question well. Why not ask a monk why they meditate. Why does anyone have a hobby or passion? It’s because I find meaning and fulfillment in it, it’s beautiful, and I enjoy it. You could also say that my brain chemistry is addicted to the feeling. I’m a freaking junkie for exercise. It’s a ton of different things that vary day by day, but the overarching thing is that I love the feeling of dangling—even when I do it in a ghetto climbing gym in the middle of nowhere. We are apes—we should be climbing.

But what is it that’s driving you?
Maybe it is more complicated—trying to do things people haven’t done before, to push my limits, to see what I’m capable of doing. In some way the drive is like curiosity, the explorer’s heart, wanting to see what’s around the corner. And part of it is being a perfectionist. If I’m gonna do something, I want to do it well. I’m constantly saying to myself: Maybe I could have done it a little better, I could have tried a little harder. When I dream about something and I finally do it, I’m always like, well, I did it, so obviously it wasn’t that hard.

Do you think what you do is dangerous?
What I do is very high consequence, but I don’t think it’s particularly risky. The odds of me actually falling are very low.

So Alex, you’re a thousand feet off the deck clinging to an overhanging crack, with one knuckle between you and oblivion. You do realize that the average person probably wouldn’t think the odds of you eventually slipping are low, right?
They don’t understand the preparation and the training, and how far in my comfort zone I am with most of the climbs I’m doing. What I do makes total sense to me and is easily understandable. A big part of my motivation for writing the book was to lay out the backstory and put it all in context so people would understand. But it doesn’t seem to be working, so maybe I should have explained it better.

I’ve done four expeditions with you, and I feel like I know you pretty well, but I don’t get it. So keep explaining.
My comfort zone is like a little bubble around me, and I’ve pushed it in different directions and made it bigger and bigger until these objectives that seemed totally crazy, eventually fall within the realm of the possible.

What about the risks that you can’t control, like rockfall, breaking a hold, or getting stung by bees?
Those kind of objective hazards I just set aside as the cost of doing business. Every time you go out on a highway you’re running an astronomically small chance of being hit by a big rig, that’s the cost of getting on the highway. But you don’t think about it every time because a long time ago you just accepted it.

What would you say to someone who has a beef with you because of the risks you take?
That stuff drives me crazy. I think it’s really misguided and just ridiculous. So many people condemn me for risk taking, but I find it sort of hypocritical because everybody takes risks. Even the absence of activity could be viewed as a risk. If you sit on the sofa for your entire life you’re running a higher risk of getting heart disease and cancer. I could be condemning those people, saying you’re running up health care costs and ruining my insurance coverage, and that’s super annoying to me. It’s all a matter of choosing the amount of risk you’re willing to accept, with open eyes. I wonder if people that hate on risk-taking are as intentional in their choices as I am. How many people are choosing to live in a way that best suits their values and best fulfills them?

As you know, the risk haters can be quite vitriolic. Where do you think that comes from?
Maybe they wish that they had more agency over their own life and that they were more able to make big choices. It could just be something like asking out that pretty girl. I’ve always liked her, but she’s too pretty, it’s too intimidating. We’ve all gone through that kind of stuff: oh I wish I had slightly more boldness, or I wish I could make those hard choices. Sometimes we just lack the gumption to go out there and do it. And when we see somebody else who is doing it, we’re like, God, that’s so annoying that they’re doing it and I’m not.

Have you had any close calls while soloing?
I was scrambling in the Sierra, and I pulled a rock onto myself and as it was falling on me I jumped to a ledge below me, and then was off balance so I had to jump down again 15 feet to another ledge. I was fine but a little scraped up from where the rock hit me.

You’re the world’s greatest free soloist, and I think we could all agree that’s a heavy title to bear. Do you feel pressure to perform?
I sort of ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. There is pressure, but it’s mostly internal. I’ve basically devoted my life to climbing, and I don’t want to put in all this effort and still suck at it. That would be lame. I was at a climbing gym in Denver last week, and there was a 14-year-old girl that was climbing harder than me. I was like: wow, I can’t climb that route. I wish I could climb as hard as that little girl. People are like, “Oh, you’re so humble.” No, this isn’t me being self-deprecating; it’s a frank evaluation of abilities. In a World Cup, I would get last place. I wouldn’t even qualify to compete. I’ve been getting questions about climbing in the Olympics in 2020. I’m like, I can’t, I’m not strong enough. I just can’t perform at that level. [Editor’s Note: a World Cup is an international sport climbing competition that takes place on artificial walls like those you find at climbing gyms. Alex is referring to the fact that he doesn’t sport climb hard enough to be competitive in this arena of climbing.]

Let’s talk about soloing El Capitan. Will you ever do it?
I would love to, that’s definitely the next frontier. Somebody will do it in the next 20 years and in a hundred years it won’t be that uncommon. But I don’t know if it will ever be me. I’ve been thinking about it since 2009, and in the years between, I’ve free climbed El Cap about 15 times. And each time I do it I’m like, hmmm, this isn’t the year, this isn’t for me. Then this summer I climbed it after taking two months off from climbing, and I felt pretty good on it. Honestly, this year was the first time I was like, hmmm, maybe.

Do you ever get scared?
Yeah, I’ve had a ton of super scary experiences with the rope on.

What about without a rope?
When you experience hunger your body is giving you a signal that you need to consume food, but you set that aside and eat when it’s convenient. But with fear it’s fight or flight, your pulse quickens, your vision narrows, and you’re like, oh my god I’m feeling fear, oh my god, oh my god, and then it cascades out of control and you lose your ability to perform. So why can’t we set our fear aside like we can with hunger?

Is this something you have mastered?
I aspire to, but there are still times when I overreact. Fear is a warning you that you are in danger, and if that danger is something you haven’t anticipated then it is a useful warning. With free soloing, obviously I know that I’m in danger and feeling fearful while I’m up there is not helping me in any way. It’s only hindering my performance, so I just set it aside and leave it be.

Ok, but you now seem to be acknowledging that free soloing is dangerous, whereas earlier you told me you don’t think it is because of your preparation, skill, and so forth.
I guess it depends on how you define danger. I don’t think that there is a high chance of me falling off the wall. It is extremely high consequence, but if that is what you mean by dangerous, then yeah, it’s super dangerous.

As you’ve pointed it’s also dangerous driving on the highway. If you swerve into the other lane and have a head-on collision with a truck, it also has a high consequence. But I would contend that it’s a lot easier to keep your car in its proper lane than it is to hang from a pinky lock on a 5.12 finger crack.
It’s easier for you since you’ve been driving since you were 16, you have a ton of experience, you feel comfortable, and you can do it reflexively. But if you were some aboriginal dude who’s never even seen a car, you’d be like: holy shit I’m about to die. Climbing to me is the very same thing. I’ve probably spent more time climbing than driving. I’ve spent a ton of time hanging off pinky locks, so it’s not a big deal. Imagine a cabbie driving in NYC or in Rio—that’s kind of like me with my climbing.

Do you believe in God?
No, there is no evidence of a God.

Is there any evidence that God doesn’t exist?
No, but there is also no evidence that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, but I don’t believe in him either. There are an infinite number of things for which there is no evidence that they don’t exist, but we don’t just assume that they do, and we don’t allow them to rule our lives the way that we allow God to.

What about a more liberal interpretation of God, one that’s not all tied up with Christian belief?
If you mean the cosmos or something like that, sure. If God is just a description of space and all that is in it, an undefined force connecting all matter, then I am open to something like that, even though there is no evidence for it at this point. All this talk about intelligent design, like wow, look how incredibly well designed the eyeball is—that’s all bullshit. I’m totally happy prescribing it all to chance. You just need enough bits and random events and eventually crazy things happen. I feel that a lot of human spirituality stems from the belief that we are unique and special in the universe, but maybe we are just what happens when there is proper temperature and proper distance from the right type of star. But I don’t really know that much about universe stuff, I’ve never been that interested.

Are you still living in your van?
Basically, but I bought a cabin this year near Tahoe. It was my grandma’s and she left it to my aunts and uncles, and I bought them out. I’m thinking about rebuilding it and making it nice.

Now you just have to find a girl that would be willing to marry you.
Yeah, I’m having a hard time finding girls that I’m really excited about.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Comments

  1. Dave
    CA
    December 30, 2015, 4:17 pm

    The guy asking these questions is a total prick, and trying so hard to get a rise out of Alex. Alex handles every question reasonably and rationally, and this douche bag continues to poke and prod. How does this guy have a job? Fire him immediately please.

  2. Dave
    December 30, 2015, 4:27 pm

    Upon further review, I didn’t realize this article was written by Mark Synnott. The guys actually pretty funny, but a total pessimist. Please don’t fire Mark, just slap him in the back of the head and say STOP IT! Thanks.

  3. Mark Michaels
    SLC, UTAH
    December 30, 2015, 5:33 pm

    I haven’t read your book yet Alex but I think you did a pretty good job of explaining what risk means in this interview. I think the driving analogy is excellent, but most of us forget the consequences involved in driving because we do it so much. Which actually makes it more dangerous. You are always aware that a fall means death, you just dont crap your pants about it, you just get er done.
    Risk=consequence x probabulity. The average person just cant comprehend how anyone can be able, let alone comfortable, doing what you do.

  4. Frituurpanda
    January 1, 2016, 7:26 am

    This is absolutely the worst interview I have ever seen. I can’t believe National Geographic would even publish something like this. He just keeps drilling him with the same question over and over again because he’s not getting the answer he wants. He’s also completely ignorant of the book, of Alex’s philosophies, and of what he likes to talk about.
    TLDR:
    NG: Alex, why do you do this?
    AH: It’s complicated. I like to push my limits and challenge myself mentally.
    NG: But why do you do it?
    AH: A big part of my motivation for writing the book was to lay out the backstory and put it all in context so people would understand. But it doesn’t seem to be working, so maybe I should have explained it better.
    NG: I’ve done four expeditions with you, and I feel like I know you pretty well, but I don’t get it. So keep explaining.
    facepalm

    xpost from reddit:
    https://www.reddit.com/r/climbing/comments/3yu8lh/ropeless_climber_alex_honnolds_closest_call/

  5. Beau Weyers
    Brisbane, Australia
    January 4, 2016, 2:29 am

    I’ve recently seen Sufferfest 2, read Alex’s book, and now read this article. This article was a brilliant addition, and should be considered for inclusion in any subsequent printings of the book 🙂 Climb on Alex.

  6. Zak
    New Hampshire
    January 4, 2016, 7:32 pm

    I actually liked this interview -the way Mark presses him on his philosophies as he attempts to peel away the layers a bit. Too often we see slobbering and pandering interviews of athletes. Cut through the BS and follow-up on the philosophical mumbo-jumbo! It can’t be easy interviewing a climber and essentially asking him why he does it… Synnott is an accomplished climber and guide in his own right, thus his inquiries from this perspective are interesting.

  7. Craig Murray
    Tasmania
    January 4, 2016, 9:39 pm

    Just to be the incredible climber that AH is would be enough but his thoughts on things are as profound and inspiring as his climbing. Seriously did he come up with this stuff off the top of his head in an interview? To be that centered- that confident in your physical ability and technique, and to have the intelligence and psychological armour to accurately see your own motivations for doing things, and to see other people’s motivations for their criticisms. I for one, want more of AH’s thoughts.

  8. […] What Was Ropeless Climber Alex Honnold’s Closest Call? at National Geographic […]

  9. […] Source: What Was Ropeless Climber Alex Honnold’s Closest Call? – Beyond the Edge […]

  10. Wamble
    United States
    January 8, 2016, 7:24 pm

    I enjoyed the shrewd questions, and though perhaps a bit nitpicky, I thought that they were right on target with the questions/concerns that a lot of people have. We ask because Alex’s decisions, though in the end are his, affect us in some way also. He is not only a role model to many, he has also become a character that people have grown to adore, and if something were to happen to him I think that it would be safe to say that a lot of people would be sad(he is sort of like a comic book hero to a lot of us).
    That being said, I think that the question of “why” was never really answered, and the allusions to driving on the highway, though hold some weight, are not completely accurate. Rock climbing in general is inherently dangerous, a rock could break (or some other catastrophic event) could happen (and does) even while tied into a rope, just as you could get in a car accident on the highway. I agree with Alex in the regard that driving on the highway is high risk (I would know bc I commute and hour to work every day), but I think that a more realistic analogy for free soloing would be to drive on the highway, without wearing your seat belt. And though some people probably don’t mind driving without a seatbelt, I think the majority of us would want to know why you would deliberately put yourself at higher risk when you do not have to. This begs the fair question “why”.
    I have free-soloed a few dozen routes far below my limit of climbing, and though I cannot honestly give you a good reason why I decided this was a good idea, there is something to be said about engaging with nature on your own, in a beautiful setting. Your mind becomes blank, meditative, focusing on the moves at hand, all of your drifting thoughts of life are forgotten, and everything is silent; it’s just you and the rock. It is indeed luring! But thinking about it after reading this article, there is a sort of pride involved in free-soloing (hence the emotionally laced responses). When I free soloed I specifically chose routes that I was completely confident in, it was like taking an exam but knowing all the answers beforehand. I felt very confident in myself, my abilities, and my talents, so confident that I was willing to bet my life on it. I think that is the crux of it, and where free-soloing can move from a high risk activity, to dangerous. The more you push your bubble of comfort, the more confident in yourself you become, and the more likely you are to try something harder (to gamble more). I think most people would agree that driving your car without your seatbelt down the road to a friend’s house is understandable, but driving on for half hour on the freeway to visit a friend without a seatbelt is a little reckless. Free soloing can be similar to wingsuit base jumping (another high risk activity), the more confident you become the more susceptible you are to try riskier jumps.
    Perhaps free-soloing El Cap to Alex is as easy as free-soloing a 5.8 hand crack to me, the difference is the amount of variables increase (such as shoe rubber dependency, friction, etc.) the more technical/minimal the climb. And yes you can always down climb, but will you if the world is watching? I understand the drive of free soloing, and though I would say it is truly a reckless activity bc your death does affect others, I still understand the pull. But what I don’t understand is what is it (the why question) that is driving you to broaden the horizons of your bubble, to risk more and more?
    I am fan of Alex, and this is simply my opinion. I do not mean anything offensive, and perhaps I am out of line, but I am just voicing my two cents.

  11. Dodd
    California
    January 20, 2016, 3:22 pm

    Despite what previous commenters have said, I’m glad the interviewer kept pressing Alex about the risks of what he does. I’ve often also wondered about how he feels about things that are out of his control (rocks breaking off, etc.). It is nice to get a little deeper and below the surface on some of this. The main thing that separates Alex from every other pro climber is that he solos, so of course everyone wants to understand the “why,” even if it is very complex and hard to explain. And I wonder how much attention Alex would get if he never soloed. This interview goes beyond the normal on the surface interviews with Alex. I’m still not sure if I really understand the why, but at the same time, I don’t think anyone should be angry at him for doing what he wants to do. It’s his choice to climb and enjoy the rocks the same way that we do. He is a public figure now, so criticism is inherent to that. He will be criticized. There will be haters. I found it very insightful and interested when he commented, “I wonder if people that hate on risk-taking are as intentional in their choices as I am. How many people are choosing to live in a way that best suits their values and best fulfills them?” It is an interesting point. It seems to be a matter of quality of life vs. quantity of life. And to Alex, soloing seems to be the thing that makes him feel alive and excited. Who can deny anyone the chance to pursue those things? He is loved in the climbing community and if an accident were to happen, his absence would be felt deeply, but I think that is proof that he made some kind of impact. Dean Potter was the same way. People hated him for what he did, but so many people were inspired by him to push their own limits. I think Alex fits more into that realm of inspiring climbing and adventurers — not to take stupid risks and chance death, but to push your own limits, whatever they may be, and challenging yourself within reason to do something that you thought was impossible.

  12. Julie
    Sacramento
    January 24, 2016, 2:18 pm

    The post’s title is a misnomer. This interview is basically a rehash of questions Alex has answered in other interviews. His explanations are understandable – even to a non-climber like me – but people who can’t get past themselves, refuse to accept his perspective.

    Also, the last “question” may have been a lame attempt at humor but smells more like another dose of Mark’s disapproval.

  13. […] What Was Ropeless Climber Alex Honnold’s Closest … – Alex Honnold free soloing Moonlight Buttress IV 5.13a in Zion National Park, UT. He is the first and only person to climb the route in this style. […]

  14. steve
    paradice
    April 17, 2016, 7:57 pm

    What are you guys talking about?

  15. […] What Was Ropeless Climber Alex Honnold’s Closest Call … – Alex Honnold free soloing Moonlight Buttress IV 5.13a in Zion National Park, UT. He is the first and only person to climb the route in this style. […]